A Columbus Dispatch headline today reminded me of something.
The headline was “Inspired by the Olympics” and is all about kids and the winter games.
My olympics was 1976, Montreal. I was eight years old.
I was not the most athletic kid around. But the Olympics, with all their crazy events and their young, bright-eyed athletes, inspired me.
I was absolutely in love with Nadia Comanece. Despite the fact that I couldn’t do a cartwheel (or even a front roll), I decided that if I worked at it, I could be a gymnast. That seemed to be the best way to get to know her. Hey, I was eight.
I was always the wimpiest kid in the neighborhood. But I turned the backyard into a steeplechase course. I practiced the shot put (with a plastic toy bowling ball). I practiced the hurdles ( a broom handle between two chairs). I set up mock decathlons with me running for the US and a whole raft of other countries falling behind me. I made up my own scoring system and conducted my own medals ceremonies (with me winning the gold every time, of course). I watched everything from swimming and diving to long jump, basketball, and weightlifting. And I tried them all in my backyard arena.
What does this have to do with anything? Well, surprise, but I never became a professional athlete. Still, sports became an important part of my life. And I think things like tennis, baseball and softball, bicycling, and running have made my life better. Now when I was running my mock decathlons in the backyard, I never thought, “I’m going to make sports a rewarding part of my life.” Instead, I thought, “I’m going to go to the olympics and win a gold medal!” I never made it. Did I fail? Of course not. The effort, the imagination, and the memories were the real medals.
I think the same thing is true of teaching science. A little later, in 1980, Carl Sagan came along with Cosmos. And I knew I wanted to be Carl Sagan. I’m not Carl, but I am doing what I love, and I use Carl as an inspiration every day. Each day before I do my work I read his quote.
“Not teaching science seems to me perverse. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
But Carl Sagan didn’t have to turn all those 12-year-old kids watching him into scientists, or even science teachers. Instead, I believe what he did, better than anyone else before or since, is get people to let a little science into their lives. And I’m fortunate enough to have the same job, the same chance, to tell the world.
Most of the kids I taught today won’t become scientists. Maybe none of them will. And that’s OK. What I hope for, what I try so hard to do, is to be the 1976 olympics, that inspiration that lets people think just a little bit differently about science and the way they can make it part of their lives.
It’s about inspiration.